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Holy, Holy, Holy Is The Lord

There all along

I wish we could film this message way out in the country on a cloudless night so that you could experience what it feels like to see the Milky Way under the right conditions. Because I grew up less than 25 miles from Manhattan with all the lights of metro New York, about the best I got to see most of the time was the Big Dipper, not much more.

So for me, an experience just a few years ago blew my mind. Our family was in Acadia National Park in Maine and signed up for a Ranger-led talk on Acadia’s night skies. Long after dark, we made our way to Sand Beach cove, which is miles from the nearest town and far from any lighting.

We laid on blankets on the sand and allowed our eyes to adjust for a long time, and then a park ranger used a laser pointer to walk us through where we are the Milky Way and showcased several planets dotting the sky. To me, it was amazing to see that carpet of stars that are always there, but we don’t often see them.

God’s holiness

And that is what the attribute of God is like that we’ll focus on this week—God’s holiness. The premise for this series is a truth that pastor A.W. Tozer pointed out, which is that what comes into your mind when you think of God is the single most important thing about you. The single most important and influential thing about you…is what comes to your mind when you think about God.

Because of the degree to which your image of God is accurate, to that extent you will have the freedom to truly know God. I can’t think of much that’s more important than this, getting to truly know God as he is, as he has revealed himself to be in the Scriptures and most of all in his Son, Jesus.

So each of these next few weeks, we’re taking one attribute of God and lifting it before you like the Milky Way on a cloudless night. This week, we turn to God’s holiness. And our guide to seeing and sensing God’s holiness this week is the Old Testament prophet, Isaiah.

Isaiah’s glimpse of God’s holiness

If you have a Bible or a Bible app, open it to Isaiah chapter 6. Let me set it up for you because this is a wild passage. Isaiah lived in ancient Israel in the 8th century B.C. and he is the second-most quoted Old Testament author cited in the New Testament. Only the Psalms get quoted more.

The book of Isaiah has been called “the Bible in miniature,” because Isaiah contains 66 chapters, while the Bible is comprised of 66 books. And the first 39 chapters of Isaiah show humanity’s troubles and our need for forgiveness and change, just like the Old Testament’s 39 books. The remaining 27 chapters of Isaiah turn to God’s intervention to save and heal his wayward people—like the message of the New Testament in its 27 books.

Among the greatest passages in Isaiah is the one we come to today, where Isaiah is given a life-changing glimpse of God’s holiness.

Before we read it, I ask you to join me in asking God to do for us what he did that day for Isaiah. Let’s pray. Lord God, I’m asking you to do something that is in your power alone. For each one listening, would you enable us to feel a bit of what Isaiah felt in what he describes? Bring us into the scene. Awaken our imaginations. Reveal yourself in your holiness, I ask and do for us what you did for Isaiah that day. I ask this in faith, trusting that you want us to know you more fully, that we may love you more deeply. Amen.

Isaiah chapter six, the first seven verses. Isaiah is given a vision of God that forever changes him. We read…

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphim, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they were calling to one another:

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty;
    the whole earth is full of his glory.”

At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke.

“Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.”

Then one of the seraphim flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. With it he touched my mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.”

Isaiah 6:1-7

It’s a wild vision filled with sights and sounds and senses that reveal to Isaiah something that until that moment he only imagined he had a clear sense of: God’s holiness. This vision was to Isaiah what a cloudless night is to anyone who gets far away from light pollution to see and take in what’s always there, but we often miss it.

Let me give you what God has put on my heart for this week, really the whole message boiled down to a single sentence, and the whole point of Isaiah’s encounter for us today. Here it is:

  • Catch a glimpse of God’s holiness, and you will forever appreciate Jesus’ forgiveness.
  • It’s all about perspective: see God’s holiness, and you will worship him for sending Jesus.
  • Just one glimpse of God’s holiness, and you will praise God for Jesus’ forgiveness.
  • Let’s unpack God’s holiness, drawing on work done by Dan Meyer on this vision given to Isaiah. We can get there by way of the multiplying scale from small, to big, to greater, to God. Small, big, greater, God.

Small, big, greater, God

In the same year that Isaiah’s king dies—a great national loss—Isaiah finds himself experiencing this vision. In the vision, he sees himself standing in the great temple in ancient Jerusalem, feeling very small. You would, too, if you were in his shoes. Many of the greatest buildings that have ever been constructed didn’t yet exist when Isaiah was alive:

  • Athens’ Parthenon wouldn’t be built for several hundred years after Isaiah.
  • Turkey’s Hagia Sophia wouldn’t be built until well over a thousand years later.
  • The Colosseum in Rome wouldn’t be built until after the time of Jesus, more than 700 years after Isaiah.
  • And Beijing’s Forbidden City wouldn’t be built until the 15th century.

So as Isaiah enters the Temple in Jerusalem in the 8th century B.C., it is by far the grandest structure he has ever seen. The Jerusalem temple was one of the largest man-made structures on earth. Its God-given design, its architecture, was intended to convey God’s holiness, how very different from us God is. It had the same effect that the great cathedrals have on us even today.

Suddenly feeling small in the presence of what’s big

High school music teacher Brad used to take students on singing trips to Europe. Without fail, he explains, without him saying anything beforehand, the students would be talk-talk-talking right up until they entered one of Europe’s majestic cathedrals. But the moment they walked in, the talking ceased, their gaze went up, and their jaws dropped. Because they suddenly felt…very small. As did Isaiah. Standing in the presence of something big and grander than every day, the only appropriate response was…silence. Awe.

It’s the same with Isaiah. He feels small as he takes in the massive stone pillars surrounding the temple. He feels small as his gaze is drawn upward to the temple’s ornate gold-painted ceiling overhead. This place is big. He feels so small because he’s experiencing something so big. But he’s not done.

Sensing something greater

Next in his vision, Isaiah experiences something which makes him shake in the presence of One so very different from him. The temple is suddenly filled with the movement of heavenly creatures—again, like the Milky Way that’s constantly there but we don’t see it because of light pollution, God opens Isaiah’s eyes to see typically unseen reality.

Isaiah calls them seraphim, plural for seraphs. This is the only place in the Bible where we hear of seraphs. Their name means burning ones, yet they hide their faces from God’s holiness in humility. Elsewhere in the biblical revelation, we hear of angels and archangels, cherubim and principalities and powers, a great variety of heavenly beings created by God.

With three pairs of wings, they cover their faces, their feet, and with the final pair of wings, they fly as they declare in the song that God is holy. They cover themselves in humility because they recognize that they’re in the presence of something far greater than they are. Let me say that again: these are the most awesome things Isaiah has ever seen, but as awestruck as he is, they are in awe of the One about whom they sing.

Standing in awe before God

Hear Isaiah again. He writes:

I saw the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne; and the train of his robe filled the temple. 

People in nations with kings and queens more readily recognize the image here: the train of the Lord’s robe—that is, just the final part of a King’s robe—completely fills the most massive building Isaiah has ever seen. And at that glimpse of something far greater than they, the heavenly creatures erupt in song…

calling to one another:

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty;
    the whole earth is full of his glory.”

The whole scene multiplies in scale from Isaiah feeling so small in this place that’s so big, to a revelation of something even greater through the seraphim, to a glimpse of God himself: degrees of majesty multiplying over and over in a way that Isaiah has never before glimpsed, from “Oh, wow” at the Temple’s bigness, to “Woah, what?” at the seraphim’s greatness, to “Oh my God!” at the Lord’s holiness.

What it means that God is holy

Let’s talk about what the Bible means we’re told that God is holy. Holy means set apart, different from or other than. If you get taken to a hospital for surgery, you want to know that the surgical equipment is sterilized, germ-free, purified. You want to know that what’s about to touch you is set apart, different from and other than what’s used for everyday purposes. God’s holiness is like that: he is completely pure, undefiled.

When the Bible reveals that God is holy, it’s saying that he stands apart from us. God is vastly different from us in terms of his character. There’s a huge difference between us and God in character. That is what Isaiah suddenly felt. It’s what God wants each of us to catch a glimpse of, and to, like Isaiah, be changed.

Our English word holy comes from the Germanic word Heilig, meaning “well or whole.” So when the Bible speaks of God as holy, it’s saying that God is whole and healthy at a level we can’t even imagine, at a level with which we have no normal experience.

The best we can do is watch Olympic athletes or record-setting professional athletes and marvel at their level of health. But when Isaiah is given a peek at God’s level of wellness, wholeness, perfection in character, it makes his knees knock compared to his own level of spiritual health.

In his book The Knowledge of the Holy, Pastor A. W. Tozer explains, “We know nothing like [God’s] holiness. It stands apart, unique, unapproachable, incomprehensible, and unattainable. The natural man is blind to it. He may fear God’s power and admire [God’s] wisdom, but [God’s] holiness [in the sense of absolute health] he cannot even imagine. Only the Spirit of the Holy One can impart to the human spirit the knowledge of the holy.”

Being unhealthy, living among the unhealthy

Here’s a stab at it. Working in a dialysis unit several years back gave me the chance to get to know several patients well. They had to deal with a lot, with dialysis literally keeping them alive by purifying their blood because their kidneys no longer could. It was obvious they weren’t healthy. I don’t say that to be unkind. Living with healthy family members and being outside of work rubbing shoulders with other healthy people made it obvious when I returned to work just how ill these precious people were.

But what if all you ever knew was life in a dialysis center? If you needed dialysis, and everyone around you needed regular dialysis, even though you wouldn’t be well, you might believe that you’re just fine, or at least that you’re healthier than a lot of others who appear sicker.

That approximates our story, humanity’s story as it plays out in the Bible. It begins in the early chapters of Genesis with how things once were—when we lived with a lot healthier humanity, humility, and love for God and one another. That’s how Genesis opens. All was well, and we were well. People were holy in the sense of walking with God and with one another.

But then our ancestors thought they knew better, just like we do at times. They rejected God’s wisdom and leadership, and their sin infected all of us to come. Sin corrupted their minds, damaged their relationships, calloused their wills, and twisted their character. And every person since then has grown up with that same disease and its ill effects.

Many people today think they are healthy spiritually, and that God turns a blind eye to our sinful choices. Maybe you simply compare yourself to people who are obviously more messed up. Isaiah could easily have been one who felt that way. But one glimpse at God’s holiness immediately disabused him of that wrong self-assessment.

At the sound of those heavenly creatures declaring God as holy, holy, unmistakably holy, the doorposts and thresholds of the rock-solid temple quiver like sand, and the air fills with smoke. We’ve seen this in Scripture before: When the Lord set the Israelites free from slavery in Egypt and brought them to the base of Mount Sinai where he gave Moses the Ten Commandments, Exodus 19:18 describes the top of that mountain covered with smoke, and the whole mountain trembled violently. (Ex. 19:18)

The appropriate response to God’s holiness

Each time God reveals his holiness in Scripture, he does so in ways that people can catch a sense of how awesome he is, how so very different from us he is. He is holy. Holy. Holy.

And so when Isaiah catches this glimpse of God’s holiness, he immediately feels his own lack of holiness. Again and again in the Bible, Old Testament and New, this is what we see. When anyone is given a glimpse at God’s holiness, he becomes undone, shocked at how unholy we are.

In the New Testament with Jesus revealing his holiness, Peter’s reaction to a miracle is almost identical to Isaiah’s reaction. Peter cries out, “Go away from me, Lord: I am a sinful man!” (Luke 5:8)

That’s Isaiah’s honest and immediate reaction. Having caught a glimpse of God’s holiness, he cries out…

“Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.”

Isaiah’s response is appropriate. If you’ve ever had lightning strike frighteningly close, so close that the flash and boom are simultaneous and leave you quaking, you have a sense of what Isaiah felt in that moment. To find yourself in the presence of God’s holiness is to suddenly be stripped of self-righteousness, self-confidence, and self-security. The only appropriate response to God’s holiness…is humility about yourself and reverence toward God.

God’s holiness and us

The Bible both Old Testament and New is clear about God’s holiness judging sin. We hear this in the warnings of Jesus like this one from Matthew chapter 12. Jesus says, “I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words, you will be condemned” (Matthew 12:36-37). That’s New Testament, straight from Jesus.

Or this from Jesus in Matthew chapter 16, where he tells his followers, “The Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will repay each person according to what they have done” (Matthew 16:27).

And this is from Luke chapter 21, where Jesus describes what will happen at the end of time, prophesying, “How dreadful it will be in those days …. There will be great distress in the land and wrath against this people” (Luke 21:23). God in his holiness stands in a position of wrath against all sin.

A.W. Tozer elaborates, “God is holy, and holiness (is) the moral condition necessary to the health of his universe. …Whatever is holy is healthy…the holiness of God, the wrath of God, and the health of creation are inseparably united. God’s wrath is his utter intolerance of whatever degrades and destroys. He hates iniquity as a mother hated Polio that would take the life of the child.” Source: A. W. Tozer, Leadership, Vol. 1, no. 3.

God’s holiness has always been hard to hear of. People sometimes misconstrue God’s wrath with the indiscriminate lashing out of an abusive parent, or the evil rage of a suicide bomber. We have to dig deeper to understand what the Bible means when it speaks of God’s holiness and his wrath against sin. James Bryan Smith helpfully explains:

“In the same way that God’s love is not a silly, sappy feeling but rather a consistent desire for the good of his people, so also the wrath of God [in his holiness] is not a crazed rage but rather a consistent opposition to sin and evil …. It is a mindful, objective, rational response …. God is not indecisive when it comes to evil. God is fiercely and forcefully opposed to the things that destroy his precious people …. God is against my sin because he is for me.” Catch that: God is against my sin because he is for me.

New Testament scholar Neil Wright adds more depth, writing, “The biblical doctrine of God’s wrath is rooted in the doctrine of God as the good, wise, and loving Creator, who hates—yes, hates, and hates implacably—anything that spoils, defaces, distorts, or damages his beautiful creation, and in particular anything that does that to his image-bearing creatures [you and me!].

If God does not hate racial prejudice, he is neither good nor loving.

If God is not wrathful at child abuse, he is neither good nor loving.

If God is not utterly determined to root out from his creation, in an act of proper wrath and judgment, the arrogance that allows people to exploit, bomb, bully, and enslave one another, he is neither loving, nor good, nor wise.” But he is. God is loving, good, wise, and…holy. Holy. Holy.

Isaiah was given a vision, an experience, to glimpse this truth about God—that he is holy, and that we desperately need to be made holy.

The one requirement for being made holy is to recognize, as Isaiah did, that you need the purifying touch of the holy God.

Listen again to Isaiah’s testimony:

“Then one of the seraphs flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. With it he touched my mouth and said, ‘See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.’”

Friend, it is only the purifying touch of the holy God that can make you whole, healthy, and holy. Have you let God touch you in this way? Do you feel your need for his purifying power?

This is why God sent his Son. Because what that purifying coal was for Isaiah, Jesus is for us. Don’t miss that: Jesus is to us, what that purifying coal was to Isaiah. Jesus is the one who has come to meet us in our unholiness and cleanse us from it.

That, my friends, is how everyone comes to saving faith in Jesus as well. Sooner or later—the sooner the better—it’s crucial that you catch a glimpse of God in his holiness, and feel your need for his cleansing. This is why God gave the vision to Isaiah. And it is why Jesus came. What we all need more than anything else is the cleansing touch of God to find forgiveness, healing, and wholeness.

And so we end where we began.

  • If you will just catch a glimpse of God’s holiness, you will forever appreciate Jesus’ forgiveness.
  • The greatest help to appreciating Christ is a glimpse of God’s holiness.
  • It’s all about perspective: see God’s holiness, and you will worship him for sending Jesus.

Have you let God touch you in that way? Do you need his purifying power?

Then pray with me:

Holy and Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, before you all desires are known, and from You, no secrets are hidden. So as we humbly turn to you today, we ask you to touch us with that redeeming fire of what Jesus accomplished on the cross, exchanging his holiness for our sin. Cleanse and heal us, we pray, that we may more fully love you and magnify your holy name, through Jesus Christ our Lord, amen.

God bless you this week, and make you a blessing!